(updates to add reference to seeing second time)
After a run of duff theatre experiences, it is with real joy that I can bounce out of The Almeida’s 3-1/2 hour German classic with so much enthusiasm that I am blogging at Midnight.
Mary Stuart is a very good piece of theatre indeed and the central performances from Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams should elicit an Olivier nomination apiece. The tension starts with the magnificent coup de theatre of a coin spin to decide which of these brilliant actresses will play which queen and sustains momentum to the end.
Juliet Stevenson won Mary Stuart tonight and her astonishing vocal range, from caressing softness to blind fury, conveyed the woman with whom everyone fell a little in love.
No prizes for guessing which queen has my sympathy but Lia Williams brought real humanity to Elizabeth, denied emotional fulfilment by the need to cling to power.
I have since been back a second time and was lucky enough that the coin fell my way so I have seen Stevenson as Elizabeth too. She is equally good in both parts but I preferred her interpretation of Mary to the more flirty version from Williams — it was still amazing though.
I last saw this play back in the mists of time of 1996 with Anna Massey and Isabelle Huppert at the National Theatre on the huge Lyttleton stage with an emphasis on the physical inferiority of Elizabeth to Mary and where the audience were remote observers.
This time Mary and Elizabeth are different because of their life circumstances alone and the compact Almeida shows their pain in close up.
The production is modern dress but not laboured with the restraint lending a timeless quality while the ungimmicky adaptation allows all the actors a chance to shine.
The second half could do with a prune, particularly the slightly daft farewell scene with Mary and her lady in waiting who claims to be in Holy Orders so that she can confer absolution. She is also wearing rosary beads round her neck- another Catholic no- no and offers communion in both kinds, something that did not happen for the laity until after Vatical II. But its heart is in the right place and the depiction of Catholicism had a respectful quality mostly missing from British theatre.
I suspect I am not the only person who wants to go back again to see the parts played the other way round. This is another triumph for The Almeida and the supremely talented, very young Mr Robert Icke.
I am also left wondering what Shakespeare would have done with this topic, whether it crossed his mind to write about it but was brushed away out of expediency. His Richard II, from which much political capital was drawn from Elizabeth’s enemies from the perceived similarities between his Richard II and Elizabeth, was written only eight years after Mary’s execution.
Had Shakespeare enacted his own version of Elizabeth’s motto Video et Taceo — I see and keep quiet? Without the master stroke from Schiller’s imagination of an actual meeting between the two rival queens would any play have been a dramatic failure even in the hands of the Upstart Crow? We could do with more Schiller on the British stage.